Lawmakers open to changes in military benefits
The government’s promise of lifetime health care for the military’s men and women is suddenly a little less sacrosanct as Congress looks to slash trillion-dollar-plus deficits.
Republicans and Democrats alike are signaling a willingness — unheard of at the height of two post-Sept. 11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — to make military retirees pay more for coverage. It’s a reflection of Washington’s newfound embrace of fiscal austerity and the Pentagon’s push to cut health care costs that have skyrocketed from $19 billion in 2001 to $53 billion.
The numbers are daunting for a military focused on building and arming an all-volunteer force for war. The Pentagon is providing health care coverage for 3.3 million active duty personnel and their dependents and 5.5 million retirees, eligible dependents and surviving spouses. Retirees outnumber the active duty, 2.3 million to 1.4 million.
Combined with the billions in retirement pay, it’s no surprise that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently said personnel costs have put the Pentagon “on an unsustainable course.”
Yet the resistance to health care changes is fierce.
Powerful veterans groups and retired generals are mobilizing to fight any changes, arguing that Americans who were willing to die for their country should be treated differently than the average worker. The American Legion has sent a letter to every member of the House and Senate pleading with them to spare health care benefits. The Veterans of Foreign Wars has urged its 2 million members, their families and friends to contact lawmakers and deliver the same message.
‘We have to keep our promise to the people’
The two groups were unnerved when both parties’ leaders on the Senate Armed Services Committee — Carl Levin, D-Mich., and John McCain, R-Ariz. — recommended that the special deficit-cutting supercommittee look at raising enrollment fees and imposing restrictions on the military’s health care program, known as TRICARE. Current military members would be grandfathered in….